DALLAS (BP) -- The Southern Baptist Convention's health and financial benefits entity has filed its first-ever lawsuit against the federal government in a legal challenge to the Obama administration's abortion/contraception mandate.
GuideStone Financial Resources and two of the organizations that take part in the entity's health plans filed the federal suit Oct. 11 in Oklahoma City. Joining GuideStone in the suit were Oklahoma City-based Reaching Souls International and Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, Ga.
The suit contends the religious liberty of the entities and other non-church-related organizations covered by GuideStone's health plan, is violated by a rule issued by the Department of Health and Human Services to implement the 2010 health-care law. The HHS regulation requires employers to pay for coverage of workers' contraceptives, including drugs that can cause abortions, but does not provide an exemption for entities like those that filed suit.
"GuideStone plans do not cover drugs or devices that can or do cause abortions," GuideStone President O.S. Hawkins said in a written release from the entity Monday (Oct. 14).
"We reluctantly take this step because we are committed to protecting the unborn and preserving the religious freedom that is guaranteed under the laws of this nation," he said. "This mandate runs rough-shod over these foundational principles."
GuideStone has protested a series of "final" rules issued during the last two years by HHS on contraceptive coverage, joining the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and Southern Baptist leaders -- as well as evangelical and Roman Catholic organizations -- in opposing the mandate and its lack of adequate conscience protections for religious employers.
After GuideStone failed to achieve satisfactory results through legislative and regulatory processes, Hawkins signaled to the Southern Baptist Executive Committee in September the entity would file suit.
"From the outset of this unacceptable mandate, GuideStone has diligently pursued a number of avenues with Congress and the Administration to protect those we serve," Hawkins said in his Oct. 14 statement. "While we have secured some partial relief, it does not go far enough. Many ministry organizations are still in harm's way despite the fact that they also share core convictions regarding the sanctity of life."
ERLC President Russell D. Moore said in a statement to Baptist Press, “GuideStone is absolutely right to stand against this incursion on conscience and the free exercise of religion. Southern Baptists stand with GuideStone. We at the ERLC will continue to work to repeal this obnoxious mandate and to restore religious liberty in this vital area."
The lawsuit cites 16 counts against HHS and its mandate, including violations of the First Amendment's free exercise and establishment clauses and the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Foes of the abortion/contraception mandate say HHS has provided adequate conscience protections for churches and affiliated auxiliaries, but not for other religious institutions.
The suit seeks a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the mandate until the judicial process is complete. GuideStone and its fellow plaintiffs face heavy financial penalties for noncompliance. The mandate will take effect Jan. 1, 2014, for GuideStone.
The GuideStone suit is the 74th filed against the mandate, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing GuideStone and the other plaintiffs.
"The government's refusal to treat these ministries as 'religious employers' is senseless," said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund, in a written release. "These people spend their lives teaching and preaching their religious faith -- if they do not qualify as 'religious employers,' the government needs to get a new definition."
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to announce soon if it will review lower court decisions regarding the abortion/contraception mandate. Both the Department of Justice and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania business owned by pro-life Christians, asked the high court Sept. 19 to review separate decisions that clashed at the appeals court level. The DOJ petition came in an appeal won by Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma City-based retail chain owned by pro-life evangelicals.
If the Supreme Court grants review in either or both cases, it is likely to hear oral arguments early in 2014 and render a decision on the mandate before the end of its term in late June or early July.
Drugs covered by the HHS mandate include Plan B and other "morning-after" pills that possess a post-fertilization mechanism that can cause an abortion by preventing implantation of tiny embryos. The rule also covers "ella," which -- in a fashion similar to the abortion drug RU 486 -- can even act after implantation to end the life of the child.
Officials with Truett-McConnell College and Reaching Souls, who represent other organizations that participate in GuideStone's health plans, explained why their organizations are parties in the suit.
"Our mission at Truett-McConnell College is to equip our students to fulfill the Great Commission by fostering a Christian worldview through a biblically centered education," said Emir Caner, the school's president, in the GuideStone release. "Part of that Christian worldview is the understanding that human life -- from conception to death -- is valuable because all human life is created in the image of God. It is an unconscionable violation of the Christian worldview we were founded upon to be required to participate in the government's scheme to provide objectionable coverages in our employer health plan."
Dustin Manis, chief executive officer of Reaching Souls, said in the same release, "Our purpose is to equip African ministers to do the ministries to which they have been called. We see this encroachment of our religious liberty by the Obama Administration as a gross violation of our rights as we carry out the ministry to which we've been called."
Truett-McConnell is affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention, and Reaching Souls is a mission organization that trains Africans to reach their continent with the Gospel of Christ.
GuideStone, which is based in Dallas, serves not only churches but missions organizations, schools, hospitals and other ministries. In addition to health and other insurance coverage, GuideStone also offers retirement, investment management, property and casualty coverage and other services.
The Dallas law firm Locke Lord LLP filed the lawsuit in conjunction with the Becket Fund.
The case is GuideStone v. Sebelius. Kathleen Sebelius is the HHS secretary.
With reporting by Roy Hayhurst, senior manager of editorial services at GuideStone Financial Resources. Tom Strode is Washington Bureau chief.
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